Glossary of Comic Book Terms.

Glossary of Comic Book Terms

When talking to comic book fans it can sometimes feel like they are speaking another language. Trade paperback? Variant cover? Retcon? Splash page? It can all get a bit confusing for someone new to comic books. This Glossary of Comic Book Terms aims to help those unfamiliar with the comic book lingo so that they can join in the conversation.

Creative Roles Within a Comic Book Creation

All of these people collaborate together to make a comic book. I would consider all of these people storytellers in one way or another.

  • Writer – The writer writes the story and has the overall vision of how the story will go. They write the dialogue and how the story will progress.
  • Penciler – This person takes the script and draws the comic. They draw the comic in pencil which then gets inked and coloured later on.
  • Inker – The inker inks over the pencils that the penciler drew. Sometimes this is digitally but often it is with actual ink. The inker can also be known as the finisher – especially when they have added additional detail to the art which the penciler has not provided.
  • Colourist – This person gives the comic colour. This used to be done with coloured ink but nowadays this is done digitally to allow for a variety of different styles.
  • Letterer – The letterer will take the script and place all the dialogue, word balloons, thought bubbles, sound effects etc into the comic in the intended places.
  • Editor – The editor makes sure that everything is good to publish in a comic. They will check for spelling mistakes, art problems and will also co-ordinate with other collaborators to make sure story elements will not interfere with other comic books.

Comic Book Formats

Single Issue  This is the serial magazine-style format of a comic. Generally, 20-32 pages of a story but sometimes can be more, with some being up to 100 pages. These are generally numbered in chronological order eg. Issue #5.

Ashcan – These are comics that are made as a prototype for a upcoming comic. These are often given away at conventions or events as promotional materials.

Prestige Edition – These are comics that are generally 48-64 pages long that have a thin spine.

Digital Comics – Editions of comics that can be viewed on computer screens, tablets or mobile phones.

Digital First  This is where a comic is released in a digital format first then later in print.

Collected Edition – This is where multiple single issues are collected to create a whole story or set of stories, often collecting 5-6 single issues.

There are many kinds of collected editions including…

  • Trade Paperback (TPB) – This is the most common kind of collected edition where it is usually collecting 5-8 single issues. It is in a paperback format and can be often referred to as a “trade”. Read here to find out if reading in trade paperback is for you.
  • Digest – These are collected editions that are smaller in height and length. The most popular comics in this format are All Ages comics and Manga.
  • Hardcover (HC) – Similar to a Trade Paperback but the cover has a very thick stock just like a hardcover novel. Sometimes these collected editions can collect more single issues than Trade Paperbacks, with 12 issues common.
  • Omnibus – These are very large hardcover collections. These collections can can be 25+ singles issues collected. Often these collect entire series or a creative run on a comic series.
  • Graphic Novel – Often a fancier term for collected edition but can also be used to describe an OGN. Essentially any comic that is bounded like a book. Some people use the term graphic novel to make the comic book medium sound more serious.
  • Original Graphic Novel (OGN) – This is a comic book that comes out in the trade paperback/hardcover format without being in the serial single issue format beforehand.

Variant Cover – A variant cover is an alternative cover of a single issue. Most of the time it includes the art of a different artist and are often fewer of these available. More information on variant covers.

Incentive Cover – A variant cover in which the retailer has to order x amount of a cover to redeem the variant cover. For example the retailer might need to or 10, 25, 50 or maybe even 100 of the regular cover to be eligible to order the variant.

Limited Series/Mini-series – This is a comic series that has a set number of issues. Most commonly it is 6 issues but it will often vary depending on the story. The series has a beginning, middle and an end.

Maxi-series – A maxi-series is a longer mini-series generally 12 issues or longer but often each publisher has a different definition. Often mini-series of 12 issues duration has been referred to as maxi-series.

Annual – An over-sized special of a comic book that is released in addition to the regular comics in that series. Learn more about annuals.

Facsimile Edition – A reproduction of a comic book issue that contains the original advertisements, letters pages, and more. Learn more about facsimile editions.

One-shot – A story that is contained to a single issue.

Webcomic – Comics that are made for viewing on the Internet  This could be in a comic strip format or as an on-going narrative.

Mini-comic – A comic that is smaller than the conventional comic book size. Generally, these comics are handmade with a DIY ethos and have small print runs.

Zine – Self-published and often handmade comic or magazine. I talk more about zines here.

Floppies – A slang term for the single issue comic. Called so as it is used with floppy paper.

Comic Book Grading Terms

I don’t really go into the collecting side of comics on this website, but if you’re looking to purchase comics online then it is good to know what these terms mean.

Mint Condition – The comic is perfect in every way and has no damage or blemishes.

Near Mint (NM) – It is very close to perfect.

Very Fine (VF) – It is close to mint but will have very minor damages or blemishes.

Fine (FN) – Has some wear but that is more noticeable than a Very Fine copy.

Very Good (VG) – A used comic book which has noticeable wear.

Good – Has a lot of wear but is still okay for reading.

Fair – Has a lot of wear – more than a Good copy.

Poor – A very damaged comic.

Key Issue – A often very collectable comic. Key issues tend to have events in them – such as first appearances or deaths – and are high in demand on the secondary market (eg, eBay or at auction)

Heritage Auctions has a great guide and more detail on these terms and how they align to a score out of 10.

Other Comic Book Terms

Panel – A panel is one of the boxes on the page of a comic book.

Splash Page – When a panel consists of the entire page.

Two-page Spread – When the comic book art spills over into two pages.

Word Balloon – The (mostly) rounded balloons that portray dialogue in a comic

Thought Bubble – Similar to a word balloon, these are usually portrayed as a character’s thoughts

Manga – Japanese comics. These comics are read right to left, opposed to left to right like western comics. Discover more about Manga.

Manhwa – Comics that originate from Korea.

Anthology – These are comics that contain multiple short stories from multiple creators. One of the most successful of the format is 2000AD.

Zero Issue – Usually an issue set before issue #1 that acts as a prelude to the main series.

Gutter – The empty space between panels.

Creator-Owned – This means the creator owns the work that they create. This also means that the publisher doesn’t own the rights to the characters or story but just the right to publish it. On of the most successful creator-owned comics in recent times is The Walking Dead.

Solicitations – A block of text, generally accompanied with cover images, which details upcoming comic book releases that have been supplied by the publisher. I go into greater detail on comic book solicitations here.

Indie – Generally referring to an independent publisher who publishes comics independently from a large corporate entity.

Continuity – This is where a comic book’s narrative has a past which might also be shared within a universe of a vast array of other comic books. The majority of Marvel and DC Comics‘ comics involve continuity in one way or another. This allows characters like Batman and Superman to exist in the same universe.

Retcon – Short for “Retroactive Continuity”. This is when a past event in a shared universe or a character’s past is changed retroactively. This can be done to add new elements to an existing story that allows for future stories. It could also be used to update a character eg: originally Tony Stark (Iron Man) was wounded in Vietnam but Marvel comics retconned this and now it is in Afghanistan.

Crossover – This is when story elements of two or more comic books come together to create one storyline across multiple titles.

Event – This is a crossover story on a generally larger scale than normal. Often these events include many more comic book characters from a shared universe coming together. Also, the outcome of the storyline often affects on-going titles for months and sometimes years to come. Find out more about event comics.

Pre-Crisis/Post-Crisis – This refers to a period in DC Comics’ history set either before (pre) or after (post) a comic called Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was released in 1985-6. Without going into too much detail, Crisis on Infinite Earths acted as a big housecleaning for DC continuity with parallel universes disappearing and characters getting modern updates. Many comics fans use the term Pre/Post-Crisis as a way to describe characters and stories on either side of this story as due to the big changes that it created.

Pre-Flashpoint – This refers to DC comics between the 1986 and 2011 before the Flashpoint storyline. The conclusion of Flashpoint allowed for some housecleaning of DC Comics continuity and paved the way for the New 52 era.

New 52 – This is the era of DC Comics between 2011-2015 in which DC Comics did a soft reboot of their whole line. All of the comics went back to issue #1 and there were many changes done to their histories. Some franchises had more changes than others. Superman and Wonder Woman had many changes made why Batman and Green Lantern left relatively untouched.

Back-issue – A previous issue of a single comic. Back issues are a month or older and not the latest issue.

Back-up Feature – This is a short story in the back of another comic book. Often these will feature a secondary story of the character, a new character that the publisher is testing the water with, or a character who isn’t popular enough to warrant their own series.

The Big Two – This a term used to refer to Marvel and DC Comics. Used as they’re the two publishers with the largest market share.

LCS – An acronym for Local Comics Store/Shop. This acronym is often used in comics journalism.

Run – This is a number of consecutively published comics of a series by a writer and/or artist. For instance, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run on Fantastic Four lasted 100 issues.

Off-Panel – It’s the things that happened between the comic panels which the reader didn’t see. It’s the comics version to the movie term off-screen.

Onomatopoeia – The sounds effects that you see in comics (eg. BOOM, POW, BANG etc)

Comixology – A popular online marketplace/app for digital comics.

Story Arc – An extended or continuing storyline that spreads over multiple issues or smaller stories of a comic book. Can also be known as a narrative arc.

Diamond – This is the shorthand name for the Diamond Comics Distributor. Diamond is the major distributor of comic books and graphic novels.

Am I missing any Comic Book Terms?

If you believe that I am missing any terms feel free to let me know and I will add them to the list.

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Comments (149)

  • Balloons
    (AKA speech balloons, bubbles)
    The objects that are used to
    contain the dialogue that the
    characters in the comic speak.
    Balloons are frequently
    rounded, but can take many
    shapes including rectangular.
    They typically have smooth
    edges, but can also have
    jagged or irregular edges.
    Text that speaks directly to the
    reader. Frequently, the text
    appears below the comic panel,
    but it can be placed in beside or
    above it as well.
    Text or icons that represent
    what’s going on in the
    character’s head.
    ? to indicate confusion
    ZZZ to indicate sleeping
    light bulb to indicate an idea
    @$%#$ to indicate anger
    Emanata are different from
    motion or speed lines, which
    indicate that a character is
    Text labels written on
    characters in comics. The label
    can be the character’s name or
    a more general label that
    identifies the character as part
    of a general group.
    Labels are frequently used in
    political cartoons to identify the
    specific public figures who are
    included in the scene.
    Narratory Blocks
    (AKA narrative box, voice-over)
    Rectangles or squares in which
    a narrator or a character from
    the story shares special
    information with readers.
    The box usually narrates
    something that is happening in
    the scene or that happened
    before the scene in the panel.
    Text labels written on objects in
    comics. Signs may be used to
    identify an object or to provide
    more information that is
    important to the scene.
    The sign can be a familiar
    object to the reader, like a stop
    sign; but they can also identify
    objects that may not be clear to
    the reader.

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